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The historiography of the French Revolution stretches back over two hundred years, as commentators and historians have sought to answer questions regarding the origins of the Revolution, and its meaning and effects.
The constant stream of major books began with Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). In it he established the conservative stream of opinion, wherein even the revolution of July 1789 went "too far". His book is not so much studied today as part of Revolution studies, but rather as a classic of conservative political philosophy. In France, conspiracy theories were rife in the highly charged political atmosphere, with the Abbé Barruel, in perhaps the most influential work Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797–1798), arguing that Freemasons and other dissidents had been responsible for an attempt to destroy the monarchy and the Catholic Church.
A simplified description of the liberal approach to the Revolution was typically to support the achievements of the constitutional monarchy of the National Assembly but disown the later actions of radical violence like the invasion of the Tuileries and the Terror. French historians of the first half of the 19th century like the politician and man of letters François Guizot (1787–1874), historian François Mignet (published Histoire de la Révolution française in 1824), and famous philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, 1856) established and wrote in this tradition.
Other French historians in the 19th-century include:
One of the most famous English works on the Revolution remains Thomas Carlyle's two-volume The French Revolution, A History (1837) . It is a romantic work, both in style and viewpoint. Passionate in his concern for the poor and in his interest in the fears and hopes of revolution, he (while reasonably historically accurate) is often more concerned with conveying his impression of the hopes and aspirations of people (and his opposition to ossified ideology—"formulas" or "Isms"—as he called them) than with strict adherence to fact. The undoubted passion and intensity of the text may also be due to the famous incident where he sent the completed draft of the first volume to John Stuart Mill for comment, only for Mill's maid to accidentally burn the volume to ashes, forcing Carlyle to start from scratch. He wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson that the writing of the book was the "dreadfulest labor [he] ever undertook".
In 1909, Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist, published The Great French Revolution, which attempts to round out the political approach with the perspective and contribution to the Revolution of the common man.
An often overlooked (and arguably minor) work is The French Revolution: A Study in Democracy by British writer Nesta Webster, published in 1919, which advanced the theory that the progress of the French Revolution was considerably influenced by a conspiracy conducted by "the lodges of the German Freemasons and Illuminati". This theory was believed by Winston Churchill, who wrote in 1920: "This [Jewish movement] conspiracy against civilization dates from the days of Weishaupt ... as a modern historian Mrs. Webster has so ably shown, it played a recognisable role on the French Revolution."
The dominating approach to the French Revolution in historical scholarship in the first half of the 20th century was the Marxist, or Classic, approach. This view sees the French Revolution as an essentially 'bourgeois' revolution, marked by class struggle and resulting in a victory of the bourgeoisie. Influenced by socialist politician Jean Jaurès and historian Albert Mathiez, historians such as Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul developed this view.
Lefebvre was inspired by Jaurès and came to the field from a mildly socialist viewpoint. His massive and reputation-making thesis, Les paysans du Nord (1924), was an account of the Revolution among provincial peasants. He continued to research along these lines, publishing The Great Fear of 1789 (1932, first English translation 1973), about the panic and violence which spread throughout rural France in the summer of 1789. His work largely approaches the Revolution "from below", favouring explanations in terms of classes. His most famous work was Quatre-Vingt-Neuf (literally Four-Twenty-Nine, the French way of saying the number 89, published in 1939 and translated into English as The Coming of the French Revolution, 1947). This skilfully and persuasively argued work interprets the Revolution through a Marxist lens: first there is the "aristocratic revolution" of the Assembly of Notables and the Paris Parlement in 1788; then the "bourgeois revolution" of the Third Estate; the "popular revolution", symbolised by the fall of the Bastille; and the "peasant revolution", represented by the "Great Fear" in the provinces and the burning of châteaux. (Alternately, one can view 1788 as the aristocratic revolution, 1789 the bourgeois revolution, and 1792/3 the popular revolution). This interpretation sees a rising capitalist middle-class overthrow a dying-out feudal aristocratic ruling caste, and held the field for almost twenty years. His major publication was La Révolution française (1957, translated and published in English in two volumes, 1962–1967). This, and particularly his later work on Napoleon and the Directory, remains highly regarded.
Some other influential French historians of this period:
Some of the significant conservative French historians of this period include:
The following five scholars have served as Chairs in the History of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne:
In 1954, Alfred Cobban used his inaugural lecture as Professor of French History at the University of London to attack what he called the "social interpretation" of the French Revolution. The lecture was later published as "The Myth of the French Revolution", but his seminal work arguing this point was The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1963). The main point he made was that feudalism had long since disappeared in France; that the Revolution did not transform French society, and that it was principally a political revolution, not a social one as Lefebvre and others insisted.
Although dismissed and attacked by the mainstream journals at first, Cobban was persistent and determined, and his approach was soon supported and modified by a flood of new research both inside and outside of France. American historian George V. Taylor's research established that the bourgeoisie of the Third Estate were not quite the budding capitalists they were made out to be; indeed Taylor showed the aristocrats were just as entrepreneurial if not more so. John McManners, Jean Egret, Franklin Ford and others wrote on the divided and complex situation of the nobility in pre-revolutionary France. The most significant opposition to arise in France was that of Annales historians François Furet, Denis Richet, and Mona Ozouf. Furet in the 1960s worked in terms of the Annales School, which locates the 1789 revolution in a "long" history of 19th century revolutionary France.
Another seminal figure in the revisionism debate is the Francophile Englishman Richard Cobb, who has produced a number of immensely detailed studies of both provincial and city life, avoiding the revisionism debate by "keeping his nose very close to the ground". Les armées révolutionnaires (1968, translated as The People's Armies in 1987) is his most famous work.
William Doyle, professor at Bristol University, has published The Origins of the French Revolution (1988) and a revisionist history, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (2nd edition 2002). Another recent American historian working in this tradition is Keith Michael Baker. A collection of his essays (Inventing the French Revolution, 1990) examines the ideological origins of the Revolution.
Tackett in particular has changed approach, preferring archival research to historiographical dialectics. He challenges the ideas about nobility and bourgeoise in Becoming a Revolutionary (2006), a "collective biography" via letters and diaries of the third estate deputies of 1789. His other major work is When the King Took Flight (2004), a study of the rise of republicanism and radicalism in the Legislative Assembly in 1791/2.
Simon Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989) is a popular, generally moderate/conservative history of the period. It is ostensibly a narrative of "Persons" and "Events", and more in the tradition of Carlyle than Tocqueville and Lefebvre. Its narrative- while massive- focuses on the most visible leaders of the Revolution, even through its more "popular" phases. The book's allegiance is to historical literary styles rather than schools. Thus Schama is simultaneously able to deny the existence of a so-called "bourgeois" revolution, reserve apotheoses for Robespierre, Louis XVI, and the sans-culottes alike, and utilize historical nuance to a degree usually associated with more liberal historians. Borrowing from the Romantics for imagery (the introduction closely follows that of Michelet's "History..."), "Citizens" also argues against the Romantics' belief in the necessity of the Revolution. Schama concentrates on the early years of the Revolution, the Republic only taking up about a fifth of the book. He also places increased emphasis on insurrectionary violence in Paris and violence in general, claiming that it was "not the unfortunate by-product of revolution, [but] the source of its energy."
Lynn Hunt, though often characterized as a feminist interpreter of the Revolution, is a historian working in the wake of the revisionists. Her major works include Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (1984), and The Family Romance of the French Revolution (1992), both interpretative works. The former focuses on the creation of a new democratic political culture from scratch, assigning the Revolution's greatest meaning here, in a political culture. In the latter study she works with a somewhat Freudian interpretation, the political Revolution as a whole being seen as an enormous dysfunctional family haunted by patricide: Louis as father, Marie-Antoinette as mother, and the revolutionaries as an unruly mob of brothers.
François Furet (1927–97) was the leading figure in the rejection of the “classic” or “Marxist” interpretation. Desan (2000) concluded he "seemed to emerge the victor from the bicentennial, both in the media and in historiographic debates." A disillusioned ex-Communist, he published his La Révolution Française in 1965-66. It marked his transition from revolutionary leftist politics to liberal Left-center position, and reflected his ties to the social-science-oriented Annales School. He then moved to the right, re-examining the Revolution from the perspective of 20th century totalitarianism (as exemplified by Hitler and Stalin). His Penser la Révolution Française (1978; translated as Interpreting the French Revolution 1981) was an influential book that led many intellectuals to reevaluate Communism and the Revolution as inherently totalitarian and anti-democratic. Looking at modern French Communism he stressed the close resemblance between the 1960s and 1790s, with both favoring the inflexible and rote ideological discourse in party cells where decisions were made unanimously in a manipulated direct democracy. Furet further suggested that popularity of the Far Left to many French intellectuals was itself a result of their commitment to the ideals of the French Revolution. Working much of the year at the University of Chicago after 1979, Furet also rejected the Annales School, with its emphasis on very long-term structural factors, and emphasized intellectual history. Influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville and Augustin Cochin, Furet argues that Frenchmen must stop seeing the revolution as the key to all aspects of modern French history. His works include Interpreting the French Revolution (1981), a historiographical overview of what has preceded him and A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (1989).
Some other modern historians include:
Works mentioned, by date of first publication: